Exhausted Minnesota legislators who are dragging themselves home after an exhausting session now face an even larger challenge — gearing up for a wild and unpredictable election fight to hold onto their jobs at the Capitol.
“I was telling some folks that we can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel, but then we can see the next tunnel right past that,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis DFLer whose powerful post hangs in the election balance.
Minnesota DFLers who control the House, Senate and the governor’s office will argue to voters that one-party rule has finally set the state on the right course, touting a host of notable achievements on the budget, tax relief, education funding and raising the minimum wage.
But Republicans believe they have their own arsenal of issues that make a compelling case against one-party control, including a significant increase in government spending, the troubled start of the state’s health insurance exchange and unfolding DFL plans for a new $77 million office building that most lawmakers will use just a few months each year.
“As a preacher once told me, ‘Sunday’s coming,’ ” said GOP Rep. Greg Davids, alluding to the biblical day of reckoning. Davids, the state’s longest-serving House Republican, predicted that DFLers will get their comeuppance in November.
“We are going to come back and we are going to take the House,” Davids said. “We will at least restore some balance to Minnesota.”
The stakes are also high for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who faces a half-dozen eager challengers.
Dayton pushed hard
With so much on the line, the governor became a driving force this year behind early passage of millions in tax breaks, more than $1 billion in new state-backed construction projects and nearly 1,000 streamlining initiatives that will touch nearly every corner of state government. Dayton, after engineering a major tax increase on the wealthy last year, now has a budget flush after years of financial crisis and is looking toward more ambitious changes and improvements that will leave a lasting impact on the state.
“This is the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it,” Dayton said in a recent interview.
GOP rivals are taking their first shots at putting a dent in Dayton’s re-election campaign.
Challenger Jeff Johnson has an ad comparing Dayton’s leadership to his teenage son’s first tries at driving, saying the governor is unpredictable and steers into disasters, like the health insurance exchange. A political action group created to support gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour has launched a television ad blasting higher state spending.
The billion dollars in tax cuts and new spending that Dayton and lawmakers approved “is just doubling down on failure,” Honour said.
DFL leaders face a delicate balancing act at the Capitol and across Minnesota. They must appease party activists who worked for a generation to win this kind of power in St. Paul, yet not push too far and risk alienating a broader swath of Minnesotans and give insurgent Republicans a clear opening.
The Senate is not up for election this year, so all eyes are on the House, which over the past four years has swung from DFL control to GOP control and then back. Many business leaders and GOP donors believe winning back the House will be easier than unseating Dayton, who logged a string of legislative accomplishments and has proved willing to dig deep into his personal fortune to finance his campaigns.
House Republicans need to pick up seven seats to regain control, and have drawn a bead on a handful of DFLers they see as vulnerable.
This is a particularly anxious time for freshman legislators heading into their first re-election fights.
First-term Rep. Jay McNamar, a DFLer, is a retired schoolteacher from Elbow Lake, a conservative-leaning area on the edge of the prairie in northwestern Minnesota.
‘With voters, who knows?’
After an outpouring from constituents, McNamar voted to legalize same-sex marriage last year and this year voted to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour. He also voted to legalize medical marijuana, hoping it will help children wracked by epileptic seizures.
“If the Legislature can relieve pain and suffering and help these little kids regain their lives, it is the best thing we are doing,” he said. “Last year was historic, this year is better.” But McNamar admits to being a little worried about how voters back home will see his time in St. Paul.
“I don’t know,” he said. “With the voters, who knows?”
First-term Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, figured out there were 234 days between the end of the last session and the new year. She went through her calendar and was shocked to find she attended 234 events, even without working Christmas Eve or day.
“It’s all a little overwhelming, but we have a better Minnesota,” she said. “We are moving forward. There are problems, but we have identified them. And we are starting to deal with them, honestly, collectively.”
A spirited and aggressive band of GOP rivals are lining up as challengers, sensing that even a modest Republican wave would be enough to end DFL control in the House.
Former Republican Rep. Kirk Stensrud is trying to win back the seat he narrowly lost two years ago to Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka. “I am going to run hard,” said Stensrud, who runs a window cleaning business. “In talking to people, they don’t like what is going on at the Capitol.”
Republican Roz Peterson lost a nail-biter two years ago to state Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville. She lost by 170 votes out of 21,200 ballots cast. Now she’s back for a rematch.
Peterson said she was floored by the approval of the new Senate office building, which Senate DFLers pressed hard for in part to serve as transitional space during the Capitol renovation. A commercial real estate agent, she did a quick search and found more than 200,000 square feet of vacant space near the Capitol.
“The big thing this year, with a fully Democratic Legislature, is that there is a voice that is not being heard,” Peterson said. “I am a believer that when you have different viewpoints, you end up with a better product.”
Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.